by Eda Savaseri
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”― Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Some say, the road to enlightenment never ends. It’s a life long journey where no one in particular can lead you. You may have companions along the way but no one, even those you trust and love, can walk it for you. Some never believe in the concept of being enlightened spiritually but accept that we do get wiser as we grow older. However this has nothing to do with our spiritual growth; it just means that as we get older we learn from our mistakes and experiences. I won’t tell you which team I’m on just now but let me first tell you what brought this up and that’s something I watched the other day.
Netflix Turkey’s newest movie ‘Have Your Ever Seen Fireflies’ is an adaptation of a theater play with the same name. The play debuted in 1999 and according to Yilmaz Erdogan – who wrote both the play and the movie’s screenplay – the play has been watched in theaters by more than 1 million people. The play has also been videotaped and later sold in DVD format. As a local, I can confirm that it’s a very well known work of theater revered by the Turkish audience, and not only well known but also well loved. It has been highly praised both by critics and the public. Making Have You Ever Seen Fireflies into a movie has been a dream of Yilmaz Erdogan since 2009, which he stated in many of his interviews.
The story of the play and the movie covers 50 years and naturally portrays a lot of political and cultural events in Turkey. The protagonist, Gulseren, is an old lady in a retirement home. She has an unusual ability; she can multiply 4 digit numbers in her head. This is considered newsworthy and two Youtubers convince her to make a video. The whole story is structured as an interview, while Gulseren leads the conversation and starts by showing them her photo album. She flips the album open and starts telling her life story from the day she was born to the current day, by showing photos and news articles. And through her story, the viewer gets a montage of Turkey, during a period of great political, social and cultural change.
THE ENLIGHTENED PATH
Since her childhood Gulseren is obsessed with fireflies in their mansion’s garden, which she summons with a flashlight. Twice she says, “light doesn’t bring enlightenment but fireflies do.” Her family and many people don’t understand her fascination with fireflies. Only a few people see them and believe her and they’re the most special people for her. What is something that we see but can’t show others? Of course it’s enlightenment and our understanding of the world. What is enlightenment if not accepting who we are and walking our path according to our beliefs and values? If we are afraid to shed a light on the darkness, do we deserve to see the fireflies?
CINEMA SHOWS, THEATER TELLS
Cinema and theater are fundamentally different mediums and even though the caption may sound like a simplistic explanation of the differences, it really isn’t. The main problem I have with the movie is that it lacks the cinematography a period piece deserves. In theater, we have the privilege of being in the same room with the actors. We have low expectations as far as the stage décor or make up goes. As long as the story is compelling and the acting is good, we don’t mind the same actor playing a 16 year old and an 80 year old. Art direction is important but it’s not our priority if we are invested in the story. However, when we are watching a movie, our attention rests more on the sets, on costumes, on makeup and on décor. This was one of the reasons I was not impressed with the movie, which I felt could have done better in its direction. Not just because her aging make up was not good enough but also because I expected the scene transitions to be different from the play.
One of the things that made the play powerful was the language that changed masterfully through the years. From the beautiful Turkish used in the 1950s to the far from perfect one in the 1990s, Erdogan makes a statement. He tries to convey how much the society had changed, how corrupt it has become, how people are increasingly rude to one another. In the movie, Erdogan, who is a highly respected artiste in Turkey and also has a cameo appearance as someone who interviews Gulseren for a job, takes several artistic departures from his original script, primarily taking out a lot of the political satire, perhaps to make it appeal more widely.
Granted, some of the references wouldn’t be comprehensible to a young or the international audience. Unfortunately, those references are a part of what makes the play appealing. Those inside jokes, especially in Gulseren’s dialogue, shows us how intelligent she is. I was able to catch only one in the movie and it was an Albert Camus reference to his book The Stranger. And because all those come backs or little jokes and references have been taken out, Gulseren’s intelligence seems solely on a mathematical level, whereas the play portrays her as deeply enlightened on multiple fronts.
The keystone in the play is the depth of the political satire. Gulseren’s family’s history is structured in a way that all the colors of Turkey are represented. Her father’s great grandfather served the Sultan as a toothpick man (!), her uncle from her mother’s side is a very religious man, and her uncle from her father’s side is a communist. They all live together in a mansion, which is a recipe for disaster and comedy but, sadly in the movie version, the uncles’ characters and the aunt have not been utilized well enough.
This is a small detail but in the theater play, instead of Youtubers, there is a journalist played by Yilmaz Erdogan, the writer of the play and the movie’s screenplay. I wish they had left the journalist character as is because there are still good journalists who know how to tease out a good story, and the whole Youtuber addition feels forced.
Nevertheless, there are many features to celebrate as well. One of the things that I enjoyed in both is the music; I was elated to see that they used the award-winning music from the theater play. Another thing I really enjoyed was the acting; I was touched by the performances. Ecem Erkek as Gulseren had big shoes to fill and she did a great job.
VERDICT: MOVIE VS PLAY
As someone who has watched both the play and now the movie, the film version leaves me feeling slightly dissatisfied. Since the story is biographic and starts from Gulseren’s birth in 1948 to the year she’s being interviewed, which is sometime in 2000s, it captures a period of enormous change in Turkey. The hardest era is in the 1970’s, which resulted with the coup d’etat in 1980. This was a tumultuous time for Turkey which is also recalled with the name “sibling fight”, because leftists and rightists in universities were fighting and even killing each other. The fact that Erdogan designs Gulseren’s uncles from opposing sides of this political conflict is because he wants to convey a message. He gives that message effectively in the play, showing that it was a fight no one won, but in the movie that narrative doesn’t have the gravitas I had hoped it would.
It would have been helpful if the movie version had some extra scenes compared to the theater play. In theater our brains are more inclined to accept missing parts that we easily fill from our background knowledge or imagination. When we’re watching a movie, we need the story to feel more complete because we’re more distant and we feel less involved in the story. It’s more difficult for us to wrap our heads around the story. Especially when it’s a story that recaps 50 years of recent history as well as a biographic story of a woman who has been through a lot.
The movie’s first 55 minutes are really good and especially the comedy is done well. I’m sad to say the latter part of the movie was not up to par with the theater play. For those who may never get a chance to watch the play, the movie is still a decent watch. You might laugh and cry at the same time. It’s not an award worthy movie but it makes a cute drama. For those who have seen the play, it’s a bit of a letdown. There’s no way of knowing how much of the artistic choices are caused by Netflix’s template for its local market movies.
IS IT WORTH WATCHING?
If you put aside the theater play and just look at the movie, I think Gulseren’s story is still worth a watch. You won’t find it boring, maybe even a bit rushed towards the end. Ecem Erkek’s acting is believable and other seasoned actors surround her. Erdogan’s message, although slightly muted, is still an important one. We must do what we think is right, only then we will live a life that’s fulfilling. Life will bring us many people and adventures; we must embrace them with open arms. Life will bring us laughter and tears, and we must accept that. And to answer the question I posed at the beginning about choosing between enlightenment and wisdom, I believe in the story’s message that the enlightened path is walked alone. In the end, we will all complete the journey alone. We must not give up looking for the fireflies in fear of not seeing them; they will only be visible to those who look for them.
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Eda Savaseri is a Turkish copywriter from Istanbul. She loves cats, books, chocolate and traveling. She loves sharing things that she learns and apply towards self-improvement.
She enjoys writing about a multitude of topics and loves to share her thoughts about TV Shows she’s watching. You can find her blog here.